July 23rd, 2024

‘Unpredictable’ free agency on tap as part of NHL’s fast-tracked off-season

By Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press on June 30, 2024.

NHL free agency opens Monday, less than a week since Commissioner Gary Bettman presented the Stanley Cup to the Florida Panthers.

The off-season comes at you fast, and with all of it packed into a short period of time and more extra money to spend since before the pandemic, general managers are not quite sure what’s to come when the free-agent frenzy gets underway.

“It’s going to be unpredictable, really,” San Jose general manager Mike Grier said Saturday on NHL Network. “It’ll be interesting. Every team’s trying to get better, and there’s only so many seats at the table.”

Sixteen seats at the playoff table, but nearly all of the league’s 32 teams will make a signing of some sort, and hundreds of millions of dollars are expected to be committed to players this week.

This summer marks the first big salary cap increase since 2019 – a $4.5 million bump to $88 million – and there is no shortage of top players who will cash in as part of a free agent class headlined by longtime Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos and 2023 playoff MVP Jonathan Marchessault.

Some moves got done Sunday, including one of the biggest-named players on the market staying put: Three-time Cup champion Patrick Kane re-signed with Detroit for next season. Toronto also re-signed forward Max Domi (four years, $15 million) and defenceman Timothy Liljegren (two years, $6 million) and Utah kept Sean Durzi around for the next four seasons with a $24 million contract.

“Sean is a reliable two-way defenceman who can anchor the power play and provide offence from the blue line,” GM Bill Armstrong said. “He’s a young, highly skilled defenceman with an incredibly bright future, and we look forward to having him as a core player for this organization.”

Beyond signings, more trades are also in the offing, after Detroit GM Steve Yzerman called some of the activity at the draft over the weekend “eye opening” and moves he didn’t see coming.

“Every team’s got a little bit more cap space,” Los Angeles Kings president Luc Robitaille said. “And we’re seeing where things are going to be (going up) in the next two or three years. We expect some movement, and it should be exciting.”

So much that at least a couple of teams’ front offices are staying in Las Vegas following the draft to handle free agency from there. That includes the Washington Capitals, who have been one of the busiest teams lately, trading for centre Pierre-Luc Dubois and goaltender Logan Thompson among a bevy of moves.

“We’re retooling and adding prospects and competing,” GM Brian MacLellan said, adding he “maybe” has some more up his sleeve by way of trade or free agency, particularly to change up his defence. “We’re going to shop around and see what we can find.”

Brandon Montour and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, fresh off helping the Panthers win their first title in franchise history, are among the experienced defencemen available, along with Brady Skjei, three-time Cup winner Alec Martinez and Sean Walker, a trade deadline pickup by Colorado.

Brett Pesce, a longtime teammate of Skjei’s with Carolina, has been linked to New Jersey after the Devils cleared room for him.

The pool of forward talent available is stronger, even if Sam Reinhart stays with Florida following his 57-goal season and Jake Guentzel signs with the Lightning after they acquired the high-scoring winger’s rights. Kane alone, even at age 35, could have a half-dozen or more suitors after being nearly a point-a-game producer last season for Detroit, and a reunion with New York Rangers cannot be ruled out among his many options.

Similar interest should materialize for Marchessault, an original member of the Vegas Golden Knights who is coming off scoring a career-best 42 goals. There may not be room left for him after the team added $6.7 million-a-year centre Tomas Hertl and $7.35 million defenceman Noah Hanifin in March, though GM Kelly McCrimmon was unwilling in the big picture to speculate about how free agency will unfold.

“It’s not completely in any club’s control,” McCrimmon said. “We have a real good handle on what that market is, what that landscape is, what it looks like and we’ll make our decisions accordingly. But it takes two parties to come to an agreement, and free agency is free agency. You’re never quite sure. We’ll see what plays out.”

The goaltending market has been playing out for some time now, with the Devils acquiring Jacob Markstrom, the Kings getting Darcy Kuemper and Boston sending ’23 Vezina Trophy winner Linus Ullmark to Ottawa for Joonas Korpisalo and more. Plenty more teams need help in net, including Detroit and Toronto.

The Maple Leafs, joining the Capitals remaining in Vegas for the free-agent festivities, are willing to roll the dice that they can find a solution.

“How concerned am I of the goalie market? Well, we’ll see what the goalie market is,” GM Brad Treliving said. “We’ve been poking around in it, and we know we’ve got to shore that up on our end but we’re confident that we can.”

– AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow and freelancer writer W.G. Ramirez in Las Vegas contributed.

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AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/nhl

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